President Joe Biden has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. He intends to meet this ambitious target through a wave of new federal spending and government programs.
But our best hope for reducing carbon emissions isn’t new government spending. It’s a technological sea change — one that can only come from the private sector.
In fact, the government is slowing progress against climate change by imposing regulations that prevent emissions-lowering technologies from reaching the market. If our leaders really want to save the planet, they need to get out of the way of entrepreneurs who can actually do so.
One would expect the government to embrace technology with the potential to cut carbon pollution. After all, Biden himself has promised to “spur American technological innovations” as part of his climate agenda.
Unfortunately, some of the most promising green tech breakthroughs face severe headwinds as a result of misguided or antiquated federal policies.
One such technology — profiled in “They Say It Can’t Be Done,” a new documentary on the relationship between innovators and regulations — is an artificial tree developed by Arizona State University physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner. These man-made trees contain a special plastic resin that can absorb carbon dioxide and release it when submerged in water. They’re 1,000 times more effective at taking in carbon dioxide from the air than natural trees. Once captured, this carbon dioxide can then be reclaimed and converted into fuel.
Lackner’s design could be scaled to produce units that each remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide daily. The main stumbling block is the lack of clear regulations surrounding carbon capture technologies — specifically the transport and storage of captured carbon.
Until a uniform federal framework exists, the process of bringing this technology to market will remain impossibly complicated and fraught with risk.
Or consider technologies that could reduce the need for large-scale livestock farming. Raising billions of chickens, pigs and cattle requires vast amounts of water, feed and land. The resulting carbon footprint is massive — about 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases a year.
Here too, new technologies could help reduce emissions. Researchers are designing cell-cultured meat — chicken, pork and beef produced in the lab rather than the feedlot. This lab-grown protein is safe, healthy and far less carbon-intensive than traditionally farmed meat.
One startup that makes lab-grown meat, Eat Just, recently obtained approval to sell its cell-cultured chicken in Singapore. But it’s still waiting on the green light from U.S. regulators. According to the firm’s founder, it could be another year — or more — before U.S. approval comes through.
For an industry as capital-intensive as cultured meat production, this sluggish approval process can make it impossible for a startup to launch and get its products to market.
High-tech solutions like these are precisely what’s required to protect our planet from the threat of climate change. While it is impossible to say whether lab-grown meat is the future of sustainable food or if artificial trees are the best solution for sequestering atmospheric carbon, an accessible and level regulatory playing field allows the best innovations to thrive.
Too many Americans believe that when it comes to climate change, only the government is up to the task. The fact is, the main barrier to large-scale adoption of sustainable technologies isn’t a lack of government involvement, but too much — or at least the wrong kind.
In order to make good on his promise to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, the president and his team will need to recognize how government obstructs the development and deployment of technology that can fulfill that promise.